Atlanta Opera’s ‘Threepenny’ is innovative theater

Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce) is surrounded by puppet beggars during The Atlanta Opera’s new production of “The Threepenny Opera.”
Courtesy of Ken Howard
Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce) is surrounded by puppet beggars during The Atlanta Opera’s new production of “The Threepenny Opera.” Courtesy of Ken Howard

Credit: KenHoward

Credit: KenHoward

Turn-of-the-century London is the last place you’d expect to see Mr. Rogers. But there he was on Thursday night; with a huge wave to the audience, he exchanged his oxfords for tennis shoes, his sport coat for a plumb cardigan. Then he began to tell a tale of murder, infidelity and greed.

In The Atlanta Opera’s world premiere production of “The Threepenny Opera,” staged in an open-air tent in the parking lot of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre to meet pandemic safety guidelines, the opera’s artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun inserted Rogers as narrative glue, pulling together scenes from the opera. Rogers (played by Tom Key) took ringleader duties in the musical theater opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, which first opened in 1928. But if Rogers is to be a moral compass, that didn’t shine through. He mostly looked wide-eyed, his voice full of bemused wonderment, at the base, reprehensible goings-on of the Londoners.

Rogers first introduces the criminal and philanderer Macheath (Jay Hunter Morris), better known as Mack the Knife, who sings a song about how much he likes to murder people. Mack soon marries Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce), the daughter of Jonathan Peachum (Kevin Burdette), the “king of the beggars,” and his scheming wife (Ronnita Miller). For the rest of the story, Mack is a terrible person, and his lovers lament that fact; it all ends with a near hanging. Yes, the world of “The Threepenny Opera” is filled with paupers and sex workers. Social-distancing requirements made packing the stage with a big chorus of sordid characters an impossibility, so The Atlanta Opera turned to the Center for Puppetry Arts for raggedy-looking puppet panhandlers, scantily-clad women and a smattering of marionette policemen.

Zvulun also cut the running time down significantly to meet COVID protocols on rehearsal and performance length. Blessed by Brecht’s estate and the Kurt Weill Foundation, The Atlanta Opera created a performance “modeled on Brecht’s own concert narration.” And that’s exactly how it feels — a concert presentation of the opera. Additional precautions included masks for all the singers and the audience, and socially distanced viewing. Despite the cuts for running time, not much of the story is missing, though fans of the 1991 Raul Julia film version of the opera might disagree.

“The Threepenny Opera” focuses on a killer named Macheath, played in The Atlanta Opera production by Jay Hunter Morris.
Courtesy of Ken Howard
“The Threepenny Opera” focuses on a killer named Macheath, played in The Atlanta Opera production by Jay Hunter Morris. Courtesy of Ken Howard

Credit: KenHoward

Credit: KenHoward

Burdette’s Jonathan Peachum and Miller’s Mrs. Peachum were radiant and emotive, despite the masks, and Gina Perregrino gave a captivating performance as Jenny. The highlight of the show was a funny prison duet between Susanne Burgess, as Lucy, and Kaduce. Following strict COVID protocols, the chamber-sized orchestra, conducted by Francesco Milioto, plays live but from a separate, smaller tent with sound piped into the main tent through speakers. In some places, the singers and the orchestra didn’t link up perfectly.

It’s easy to draw similarities between the fall and spring tent series. Both featured a tried-and-true opera warhorse (“Pagliacci,” “Carmen”) and a more conceptual offering (“The Kaiser of Atlantis,” “The Threepenny Opera”). Like “Kaiser,” “Threepenny” is more of an experimental, artistic event using projected illustrations, video and the aforementioned puppets.

In a sense, The Atlanta Opera’s fall and spring productions have been leading up to this performance. The spirit of Kurt Weill’s opera has been the connective tissue of The Atlanta Opera’s four pandemic operas, but “The Threepenny Opera” proved to be the least thrilling of the lot.

“The Threepenny Opera” might be the final installment of the Atlanta Opera’s pandemic shows, performances that have proved to be extremely successful by embracing pandemic constraints to create new theater. It will be wonderful to see once again opera on a grand scale in the Energy Performing Arts Centre, but Zvulun and company should keep the tent for special occasions.

Opera Review

“The Threepenny Opera”

8 p.m. April 29; May 1, 5, 7, 9. $37.25-$74.50. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org

In Other News